Jazz Inside Magazine interviews Kurt Elling

Kurt Elling is a jazz vocalist for modern times. He has always been an artist with a vision. The native Chicagoan — now living in New York City — has had the uncanny skill and knack for consistently banishing musical borders and creating something fresh and inventive. Elling's blend of undeniable reverence and deconstructionist beauty he brings to classic material has graced a recording catalog yielding several Grammy nominations and a 2009 win for Dedicated to You: Kurt Elling Sings the Music of Coltrane and Hartman.
With his latest Concord Jazz release 1619 Broadway — The Brill Building Project, Elling continues his quest to challenge and engage the audience, with a new chapter in his diverse and entertaining oeuvre. This is the vocalist's love letter to the legendary Manhattan location where songwriters like Lieber and Stoller, Paul Simon, Carole King and many others created some of the most enduring pop songs of all time.

Jazz Inside: Kurt, can you talk about the events that lead up to conceiving your latest project?

Kurt Elling: Sure! As you know, I'm living in New York these days and I've got a map of the city in my head. And as a part of that I go for these long walks and also my manager's office is just down the block from the Brill Building. And it was time for us to make another record or consider talking about it. And it seemed like a very natural element for me to step into. It's not a bunch of material that jazz people have spent inordinate amounts of time on and it's a very, very New York location that's universalized itself to the world through the music that's come out of there. And it has a really long history that appeals to many parts of my imagination. It gave me some good grist for consideration and for homework taking.

JI: Can you describe the process of choosing the material from such a vast catalog of songs?

KE: I got together with a friend of mine named Phil Galdston, who's much more of an authority than I could ever hope to be about the Brill. He's a native New Yorker, and kind of an armchair historian, and he helped me put together a very, very broad list of compositions to listen to that came out of the Brill. And we narrowed it down to a bunch of them. We picked some from intuition and did a little more research and picked some with a little more history. I allowed things to percolate in my consciousness so that I would have some sort of arrangement idea going into the situation. I narrowed it down, time and time again, until I came to the place of the list we're working on.

JI: It seemed to me it was a good cross-section of the very familiar tunes like “On Broadway” to maybe songs people wouldn't expect like “American Tune” or something like that.

KE: Yeah, and some of the compositions on the record don't really come from, what some authorities would call the classic “Brill sound”. It was that period from 1955 to 1970 when there was this inordinate amount of great pop music coming out of the Brill with a very signature sound. However, I really wanted to capture a longer and broader history of the Brill, not only pointing to its classic era but also pointing to the time when Tin Pan Alley went out and the Songbook was in development. And you had a lot of Songbook writers who were essentially apprentice workers in the Brill. So that's where you get a Jimmy Van Heusen, with his great lyric for “Come Fly With Me,” which is not really a Brill song, included here. If you're casting a broad and not didactic net toward the Brill, then that's somebody you can point to that came out of there as an apprentice and song plugger that went on to greater glory as a songwriter. In time the number of Paul Simon songs that were, strictly speaking, part of that Brill sound were very few. Nevertheless, Paul Simon still has an office there today. So I really did not want to be too didactic about this and let my intuition guide me on things.

JI: You've taken similar approaches to doing material that's not part of the jazz idiom by artists like King Crimson, Joe Jackson, The Guess Who and others. Your interpretations are excellent but it's not what one would immediately expect from a jazz artist.

KE: Yeah, I feel that's part of the jazz musician's ability to incorporate other kinds of music into what they do. It's part of the vocation of a jazz artist.

JI: It really feels like the pervasive thought with this record was not to do a rehash but infuse a lot of these classics with a new kind of energy. Was there an overall method to your arranging approach? Did you and Laurence [Hobgood.longtime pianist and collaborator] sit down and have a plan as to how you wanted to attack these songs, so to speak?

KE: Well, yes and no. We have the way that we work that I think has been pretty successful. I'll try to gather as many of the compositions as I can and have as many ideas as I can and I'll talk to Laurence about what the overall concept for a song is. And he'll bring two or three things to the table that he's outlined and we'll work on those things together. For instance, with “On Broadway,” I had the idea to do the tune and I knew that we needed a riff of some kind to go under that. And just letting it percolate in my mind for a while I was able to come up with the bass idea that's in there. I brought it to Laurence and we refined it from there. With “Come Fly With Me” Laurence said here's the idea that I have and I loved it. With “Pleasant Valley Sunday” I knew I wanted to incorporate all the quotations and little idiomatic bits from television shows of the time as a part of the arrangement. And Laurence came up with the way the melody was going to restructure itself. Between the two of us we kinda play it where whoever has the best idea wins. And it really works out!

JI: You have a great way of taking a lyric and kind of adding something to it or twisting a phrase in an interesting way. Where did that come from and who influenced you in that way?

KE: I just think that's the job [laughs]. Every jazz singer who's out there who does their own thing to songs– that's what we're here to do, you know?

JI: What can you tell me about the personnel on this latest record?

KE: A lot of the guys that are on the latest record are in my regular band.Laurence, Clark Sommers (bass) and John McLean (guitar). I was very happy that we could get Kendrick Scott (drums) on this recording and he'll be touring with us throughout the fall. And Joel Frahm (tenor sax) has worked with us a few times. He's a really great friend and his sound really complements us. And the same is true of Ernie Watts (tenor sax) who was on our John Coltrane/Johnny Hartman thing. I was really happy to work with him again.

JI: It's a great ensemble on here. Now, is there a typical working day for you or does it vary from day to day?

KE: I think the most typical working day for me is getting on a plane and going someplace. When I'm not on the road it's all about trying to catch up with friends, trying to catch up with business and making plans for future projects, trying to get some writing done and catch up with my family.

JI: Who is your primary audience and how has the response been to the diversity of your catalog? You seem to change your approach from album to album, to a certain extent, and your audience has been right there with you.

KE: We get all different kinds of ages of people. We get people who are in university and conservatories right now. When we're in Europe a lot of young people show up. And then we get people who have been jazz fans their whole lives in their 60s, 70s and 80s. It really does span the gamut and I'm really happy about that. And they tend to be people that want to have an adventure and a little bit bored with music that doesn't take enough chances. They tend to comment on that and are excited that we're moving things around. And that curiosity tends to define them more than the racial, age or educational input that I could tell you about.

JI: Kurt, what's your take on the current state of the music industry, with respect to the deconstruction, if you will, of all the traditional avenues in the way music is distributed now?

KE: Well, in the first place you can't really control it [laughs]. You've gotta have the ingenuity and the flexibility to move it around and to roll with the punches. In my own case some things have really changed in that there isn't the same amount of radio to get airtime on. There aren't the same number of places in a given town I can roll into when I'm gonna do a concert, do interviews and try to push the show. To me the single biggest thing is that there aren't enough jazz outlets on radio. But at the same time you hope that people are gonna be discovering the music online. And in a way that's true. There is a greater access. But there aren't enough people educating younger listeners, specifically. They're coming across the music rather haphazardly, and not in any kinda way that they can get a sense of the great forward motion and development of the music. So that's kind of a shame. I would say that it has certainly opened up and leveled the playing field for musicians that are trying to get noticed. And that's a good thing! But it's also a hard thing for them because there isn't any kind of more recognized or more stable ladder to climb. You can't say — “man, if I could only get a record deal or as soon as I get a record deal.” There are a lot of things that could have been conceived to have been a drag in the previous incarnation of the music business that, now that they're gone and it's open season, makes things more confusing, especially for younger people just trying to get a break. In my mind, the same things apply as they did when I was starting out. Try to play out as much as you can and take every kind of gig and play with as many people as you can. And play as well as you can and do everything you can to get noticed. That's the only thing you can depend on. And that's still what I do.

JI: The Brill Building, Motown, The Philly Sound, Stax — do you think there could be another creative and consistent hit machine like these constructs, if you will, today?

KE: I guess it's possible. Anything's possible! It's possible that it's already happening without the geographic proximity that you're referring to. But that it's taking place more because cats can Skype with each other through ISPN lines and do things in real time without the benefit of geographic proximity. I don't know what those collectives are because I'm not that hip [laughs]. But I wouldn't be surprised if it's not happening. I would also say that there are young people coming out of music schools and conservatories and they all know each other. They all contribute to one another's sound and they all play on each other's records and all kinds of things like that. In certain ways that's already happening. I don't know if it is in terms of the pop world. But that seems promising to me.

JI: Are you gonna be doing anything different or unique to promote 1619 Broadway — The Brill Building Project from your previous releases?

KE: Well in the first place we're gonna be touring as much as we possibly can. That's the way that we usually do it. And I know that there are a lot of things that we don't have a lockdown on yet. I know we've been talking about doing a performance on the street outside of the Brill in celebration of the building's anniversary or a song's anniversary. I'm gonna be doing some interviews for the public with some of the great living Brill songwriters. So that'll be fun!